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Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

The United States is laboring through the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression.

Median household income is stagnant and labor-force participation is dismal.

Sounds awful, right?

Compared to the strong growth of the pro-market Reagan years and pro-market Clinton years, it is awful.

But maybe we should count our blessings

Here’s a chart from a presentation. by economists from the European Central Bank, and it shows how much the United States has grown since 1999 compared to Japan and euro nations.

We’ve enjoyed nearly twice as much growth as Europe and almost three times as much growth as Japan. Which is remarkable since those countries aren’t as rich as the United States and they should grow faster according to convergence theory.

So while it’s true that Obamanomics hasn’t been good for the United States, it’s apparently not as bad as Abenomics in Japan and Hollandenomics (and Renzinomics and Tsiprasnomics) in Europe.

Allan Meltzer explains why Europe is lagging in an article for the Hoover Institution.

Europe has become the model for how democratic capitalism can give way to the welfare state. Following a surge of market-driven growth after World War II, there was a rise across the continent in income redistribution and regulations intended to protect workers and consumers, and to achieve “fairness.” From the 1960s onward, high tax rates and heavy regulations slowed economic growth. And many welfare state programs became roadblocks to economic progress by resisting reforms and prolonging the current European recession. …France and Italy are not as far along to disaster as Greece, but their welfare systems are also difficult to reduce to regain competitiveness. …Monetary policy cannot overcome real, structural problems. Spain and Ireland showed that EU members can restore growth most effectively by making…painful real changes… Sluggish growth will continue until EU officials adopt policies that encourage private investment.

It’s depressing to think that some American politicians want to copy European failure.

Some of the candidates in the 2016 presidential race offer more welfare state benefits as a remedy for current voter malaise. The promise is that the way to make everyone better off is by taxing high incomes and distributing more to others. That’s the route that many in Europe took. Instead of the promised happy outcome, much of Europe got slow growth and high unemployment and an ever greater need to restore competitiveness by reducing the expanded welfare state. …Prime Minister Thatcher often said, “The welfare state will end when they run out of YOUR money.” If she was right, the end for Europe is here. And the lesson for the United States is to adopt less costly policies before debt markets force the change. …the lesson for the United States is that we will not escape the problems of the welfare state.

Even the left-wing bureaucrats at the OECD sort of admit Europe is falling behind.

I’ve previously shared data from the OECD showing much higher living standards in the US than in Europe, and here are some excerpts from a recent report on global migration patterns for high-skilled workers.

…migrants to the EU are younger and less well educated than those in other OECD destinations. Of the total pool of highly-educated third-country migrants residing in EU and OECD countries, the EU hosts less than one-third (31%), while more than half (57%) are in North America. …most importantly, many labour migrants are not coming to the EU under programmes for skilled workers. …EU Member States covered by EU legal migration policies received annually less than 80 thousand highly qualified third country labour migrants. By comparison, Canada and Australia have annual admissions under their selective economic migration programmes for highly-qualified workers of 60 thousand each.

In the section on recommendations, you won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD failed to suggest pro-market reforms.

There’s boilerplate language about streamlining the process for high-skill immigrants, but nothing about the stifling tax burdens and expensive welfare states that cause European economies to be so stagnant and unappealing.

One very visible manifestation of inferior living standards in Europe is that people generally have very cramped housing conditions compared to the United States (even Americans in poverty have more living space than the average European).

And to make matters worse, air conditioning is the exception not the rule.

Amusingly, Europeans pretend to feel superior about their summertime misery, as reported by the Washington Post.

Whereas many Americans would probably never consider living or working in buildings without air conditioning, many Germans think that life without climate control is far superior. …many Europeans visiting the U.S. frequently complain about the “freezing cold” temperatures inside buses or hotels. …Europe thinks America’s love of air-conditioning is actually quite daft. …according to the Environmental Protection Agency, …demand for air-conditioning has only  increased over the past decades. …the United States consumes more energy for air conditioning than any other country. …Europeans are generally more used to warmer room temperatures because most of them grew up without any air-conditioning.

As one might expect, the issue is being used by climate alarmists.

Another factor that may explain Europe’s sniffy reaction toward American cooling is the continent’s climate change awareness. According to a 2014 survey, a majority of Europeans would welcome more action to stop global warming. Two thirds of all E.U. citizens said that economies should be transformed in an environmentally-friendly manner. Cooling uses much more energy than heating, which is why many Europeans prefer sweating for a few days… America’s air-conditioning addiction may also have another negative side effect: It will make it harder for the U.S. to ask other countries to continue to abstain from using it to save energy. …”If everyone were to adopt the U.S.’s air-conditioning lifestyle, energy use could rise tenfold by 2050,” Cox added, referring to the 87-percent ratio of households with air-conditioning in the United States.

I’m much more tolerant of heat than the average American, so I probably could survive in a world without air conditioning.

But I hope that day never arrives and I continue to enjoy the full benefits of living in a first-world nation.

Let’s close with a fascinating map showing populations changes in Europe from 2001-2011. It’s in German, but all you need to know is that dark red means a 2-percent-plus increase in population while dark blue means a decline of at least 2 percent.

France and Ireland have population growth, as well as (to a lesser extent) Northern Italy and Poland.

But take a look at Portugal, Northwestern Spain, Eastern Germany, and the non-Polish portions of Eastern Europe. You’ll understand why I fret about demographic crisis in both Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

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Over the years, I’ve shared some clever images, jokes, and cartoons to expose the flawed mindset of those who hope to achieve coerced equality of outcomes with redistribution and high tax rates.

The size of a pizza vs the share of a slice.

The modern version of the Little Red Hen.

Washington’s Byzantine welfare state.

Chuck Asay’s overburdened tractor.

A left-wing nursery rhyme.

The Wizard-of-Id parody.

Two pictures showing how the welfare state begins and ends.

A socialist classroom experiment (including a video version).

The economics of redistribution in one image.

As you can see, this is a common-sense issue. When you give people money on the condition that they don’t earn much money, you create a perverse incentive for them to be unproductive.

Especially since, when people work more and earn more, they get hit by a combination of fewer handouts and more taxes. The net result is very high implicit marginal tax rates, in some cases rising above 100 percent.

Needless to say, it’s very foolish to have a welfare state that puts people in this untenable situation where the welfare state becomes a form of economic quicksand.

And it’s also foolish to punish the people who are pulling the wagon with high tax rates and pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Russell Jaffe, one of our Cato interns, helpfully cranked out a clever little image showing how redistribution is bad for both those who receive and those who pay.

No wonder the welfare state and War on Poverty have been bad news for both taxpayers and poor people.

And the problem is getting worse, not better.

Let’s begin to wrap up. I shared a Thomas Sowell quote at the beginning to today’s column.

Now let’s read some of his analysis.

He aptly and succinctly summarized why redistribution is a no-win proposition (h/t: Mark Perry).

The history of the 20th century is full of examples of countries that set out to redistribute wealth and ended up redistributing poverty. …It is not complicated. You can only confiscate the wealth that exists at a given moment. You cannot confiscate future wealth — and that future wealth is less likely to be produced when people see that it is going to be confiscated. …Those who are targeted for confiscation can see the handwriting on the wall, and act accordingly. …We have all heard the old saying that giving a man a fish feeds him only for a day, while teaching him to fish feeds him for a lifetime. Redistributionists give him a fish and leave him dependent on the government for more fish in the future.

So what’s the bottom line?

The simple (and correct) answer is to dismantle the welfare state. State and local governments should be in charge of “means-tested” programs, ideally with much less overall redistribution (a goal even some Scandinavian nations are trying to achieve).

In effect, the goal should be to replicate the success of the Clinton-era welfare reform, but extending the principle to all redistribution programs (Medicaid, food stamps, EITC, etc).

P.S. Some honest leftists admit that the welfare state cripples independence and self reliance.

P.P.S. For those who like comparisons, you can peruse which states provide the biggest handouts and also which nations have the most dependency.

P.P.P.S. To end on a sour note, our tax dollars are being used by the Paris-based OECD to produce junk research that argues more tax-financed redistribution somehow is good for growth.

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Something doesn’t add up. People like me have been explaining that California is an example of policies to avoid. Depending on my mood, I’ll refer to the state as the France, Italy, or Greece of the United States.

But folks on the left are making the opposite argument.

A writer for the Huffington Post tells readers that California is proof that the blue-state model can work.

Many factors contribute to California’s preeminence; one being its liberalism. Republicans don’t like to acknowledge California’s success. …The state’s job growth outpaced the nation’s in the first nine months of last year. California’s non-farm employment of 15.7 million people is at an all-time high. …California’s economy has thrived in spite of relatively high taxes and stringent regulations.

Meanwhile, a couple of columnists for the Washington Post are doing a victory dance based on recent California numbers.

…the…experiences of California…run counter to a popular view, particularly among conservative economists, that tax cuts tend to supercharge growth and tax increases chill it. California’s economy grew by 4.1 percent in 2015, according to new numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, tying it with Oregon for the fastest state growth of the year. That was up from 3.1 percent growth for the Golden State in 2014, which was near the top of the national pack. …almost no one can say that raising taxes on the rich killed that recovery.

And let’s not forget that Paul Krugman attacked me two years ago for failing to acknowledge the supposed success story of job creation in California. I thought he made a very silly argument since the Golden State at that time had the 5th-highest unemployment rate in the nation.

But Krugman and the other statists cited above do have a semi-accurate point. There are some statistics showing that California has out-performed many other states over the past couple of years. Let’s look at the numbers. The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank has a helpful website filled with all sorts of economic data, including figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis on per-capita income in states.

I selected California for the obvious reason, but also Texas (since it’s often seen as the quintessential “red state”) and Kansas (which has become infamous for a big tax cut). And, lo and behold, if you look at what’s happened to per-capita income in those states, California has enjoyed the most growth.

Is this evidence that high taxes and a big welfare state are good for growth?

Hardly. California’s numbers only look decent because the state fell into a deep hole during the recession. And, generally speaking, a severe recession almost always is followed by good numbers, even if an economy is simply getting back to where it started.

So let’s expand on the above numbers and look at what’s happened not just over the past five years, but also since 2000 and 2005.

And if you look at California’s relative performance over a 10-year period or 15-year period, all of a sudden the Golden State looks a bit tarnished.

By the way, these numbers are not adjusted for either inflation or for cost of living. The former presumably doesn’t matter for our purposes since changing to inflation-adjusted dollars wouldn’t alter the rankings. Meanwhile, the data on cost of living would matter for comparative living standards (for instance, $46,745 in Texas probably buys more than $52,651 in California), but remember that we’re focusing on changes in per-capita income (i.e., which state is enjoying the most growth, regardless of starting point or how much money can buy in that state).

In any event, the numbers clearly show there’s more long-run growth in Texas and Kansas, and it’s long-run growth rates that really matter if you want more prosperity and higher living standards for people.

But let’s not stop there. Our left-wing friends frequently tell us that per-capita income numbers are sometimes a poor measure of overall prosperity since a few rich people can skew the average.

It’s better, they tell us, to look at median household income since that’s a measure of the well-being of ordinary people. And we can get those numbers (only through 2014, though adjusted for inflation) from the Census Bureau. What does this data show for Texas, California, and Kansas?

As you can see, California is in last place, regardless of whether the starting point is 2000, 2005, or 2010. In other words, California may have enjoyed some decent growth in recent years as it got a bit of a bounce from its deep recession, but it appears that the benefits of that growth have mostly gone to the Hollywood crowd and the Silicon Valley folks. I guess this is the left-wing version of “trickle down” economics.

Perhaps most interesting, the short-run numbers show that tax-cutting Kansas has a comfortable lead over tax-hiking California.

If that trend continues, then over time we can expect that the long-run numbers will begin to diverge as well.

Let’s close by looking at some analysis about those two states for those who want some additional perspective.

Victor David Hanson, a native Californian, has a pessimistic assessment of his state. Here’s some of what he wrote for Real Clear Politics.

The basket of California state taxes — sales, income and gasoline — rates among the highest in the U.S. Yet California roads and K-12 education rank near the bottom. …One in three American welfare recipients resides in California. Almost a quarter of the state population lives below or near the poverty line. …the state’s gas and electricity prices are among the nation’s highest. …Current state-funded pension programs are not sustainable. California depends on a tiny elite class for about half of its income tax revenue. Yet many of these wealthy taxpayers are fleeing the 40-million-person state, angry over paying 12 percent of their income for lousy public services. …Connecticut and Alabama combined in one state. A house in Menlo Park may sell for more than $1,000 a square foot. In Madera three hours away, the cost is about one-tenth of that. In response, state government practices escapism, haggling over transgendered restroom issues and the aquatic environment of a 3-inch baitfish rather than dealing with a sinking state.

The bottom line is that he fears the trend line for his state is moving in the wrong direction.

John Hood takes a look at why the Kansas tax cuts have resulted in budget turmoil, while tax cuts in has state of North Carolina haven’t caused much controversy.

How did Kansas and North Carolina end up in such different conditions? For one thing, while the two states both enacted major tax cuts, they weren’t structured the same way. Kansas punched a large hole in its income-tax base by excluding self-employment income. North Carolina briefly created a version of this exclusion in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, but then wisely eliminated it in favor of applying a low, uniform tax rate on a broad base of personal income. In Kansas, lawmakers also allowed themselves to be bamboozled by some out-of-state tax “experts” claiming that cutting income taxes would generate so much new investment, entrepreneurship, and population growth that the revenue loss to the state would be substantially offset. This can actually be true, of course — in the very long run, counted in decades. In the short run of state budgeting, however, policymakers are better off making far more conservative assumptions about revenue feedbacks. …Our state policymakers didn’t just reduce and reform taxes. They also controlled expenditures. Since the enactment of the 2013 tax changes, their authorized budgets have never pushed spending growth above the combined rates of inflation and population growth. Actual spending, in fact, has often come in below even these budgeted amounts.

John’s message is that pro-growth tax cuts don’t generate overnight miracles. Lawmakers have to be prudent when calculating Laffer Curve feedback. And they also should make sure there is concomitant restraint on the spending side of the budget.

The bottom line is that the Kansas tax cuts are good for the state’s economy, but they might not be sustainable unless politicians don’t quickly make reforms to cap spending.

P.S. Closing with some California-specific humor, this Chuck Asay cartoon speculates on how future archaeologists will view California. This Michael Ramirez cartoon looks at the impact of the state’s class-warfare tax policy. And this joke about Texas, California, and a coyote is among my most-viewed blog posts.

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In 2014, I was outraged that more than 80 percent of senior bureaucrats at the Veterans Administration were awarded bonuses, even though this is the bloated bureaucracy that caused the death of many veterans by putting them on secret waiting lists. This, I argued, was a perfect example (in a bad way) of federal bureaucracy in action.

In 2015, I put together a version about bureaucracy in action at the local level, noting that the number of firefighters has climbed by 50 percent since 1980, even though the number of fires has declined by more than 50 percent during the same period.

This year, let’s look at the overseas edition of bureaucracy in action. Our story comes from Italy, where there’s been a government shutdown. Though only in the town of Boscotrecase. And not because of an Obamacare-style budget fight, but rather because a bunch of the local bureaucrats got arrested for routinely skipping work.

The mayor of a small town outside Naples had to shut down most municipal offices after police arrested 23 of his staff in the latest revelations of absenteeism in Italy’s public sector. Staff were filmed clocking in and then leaving to go about their personal business or using multiple swipe cards to register absent colleagues, police said, in scenes that have become familiar after numerous similar scandals. A police video showed one man trying to tamper with a security camera and then putting a cardboard box over his head to hide his identity before swiping two cards. Police arrested around half of all employees in the town hall offices of Boscotrecase following a weeks-long investigation that they said revealed 200 cases of absenteeism involving 30 people. …four major town hall departments had been closed on Tuesday due to a lack of staff. Those arrested, accused of fraud against the state, included the head of the local traffic police and the head of the town’s accounting department. The workers, whose arrest comes amid a government crackdown against absenteeism, have been suspended from work for between six and 12 months and risk eventual dismissal.

What I want to know, of course, is whether the bureaucrats were suspended with pay or without pay.

If it’s the former (which would be my guess), how will their lives be any different? They’ll be goofing off at home while getting overpaid!

No wonder Italy is in a death spiral.

P.S. The Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is comprised of specific government employees who have perfected the art of slacking (such as the Italian doctor who legally worked only 15 days in a nine-year period). That being said, I’m tempted to give adjunct membership to the entire local government of Boscotrecase.

P.P.S. Switching topics, the unpalatable choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton does have a silver lining. It’s generated this clever make-believe announcement from the British Monarch.

To the citizens of the United States of America from Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II:

In light of your failure to nominate competent candidates for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories (except North Dakota, which she does not fancy). Your new Prime Minister, Theresa May, will appoint a Governor for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire may be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

———————–
1. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘colour,’ ‘favour,’ ‘labour’ and ‘neighbour.’ Likewise, you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters, and the suffix ‘-ize’ will be replaced by the suffix ‘-ise.’ Generally, you will be expected to raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. (look up ‘vocabulary’).
————————
2. Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as ”like’ and ‘you know’ is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. There is no such thing as U.S. English. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take into account the reinstated letter ‘u” and the elimination of ‘-ize.’
——————-
3. July 4th will no longer be celebrated as a holiday.
—————–
4. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using lawyers, psychics or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you’re not quite ready to be independent. If you can’t sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, then you’re not ready to be a sovereign nation.
———————-
5. Therefore, you will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous than a vegetable peeler. Although a permit will be required if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.
———————-
6. All intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left side with immediate effect. At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Both roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.
——————–
7. The former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been calling gasoline) of roughly $10/US gallon. Get used to it.
————–
8. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips, and those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called crisps. Real chips are thick cut, fried in animal fat, and dressed not with catsup but with vinegar.
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9. The cold, tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as beer, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as Lager. South African beer is also acceptable, as they are pound for pound the greatest sporting nation on earth and it can only be due to the beer. They are also part of the British Commonwealth – see what it did for them. American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine, so that all can be sold without risk of further confusion.
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10. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as good guys. Hollywood will also be required to cast English actors to play English characters. Watching Andie MacDowell attempt English dialect in Four Weddings and a Funeral was an experience akin to having one’s ears removed with a cheese grater.
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11. You will cease playing American football. There is only one kind of proper football; you call it soccer.
Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which has some similarities to American football, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like a bunch of nancies).
———————
12. Further, you will stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the World Series for a game which is not played outside of America. Since only 2.1% of you are aware there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. You will learn cricket, and we will let you face the South Africans first to take the sting out of their deliveries.
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13. You must tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us mad.
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14. An inland revenue agent (i.e. tax collector) from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all monies due (backdated to 1776).
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15. Daily Tea Time begins promptly at 4 p.m. with proper cups, with saucers, and never mugs, with high quality biscuits (cookies) and cakes; plus strawberries (with cream) when in season.

Reasonably clever. Reminds me of the somewhat un-PC humor a British friend sent me on how different countries respond to terrorism.

By the way, I’m not sure the part about needing a permit to carry a vegetable peeler is a joke. After all, we’re talking about the country where you need an ID to buy a teaspoon.

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The Congressional Budget Office has just released the 2016 version of its Long-Term Budget Outlook.

It’s filled with all sorts of interesting data if you’re a budget wonk (and a bit of sloppy analysis if you’re an economist).

If you’re a normal person and don’t want to wade through 118 pages, you’ll be happy to know I’ve taken on that task.

And I’ve grabbed the six most important images from the report.

First, and most important, we have a very important admission from CBO that the long-run issue of ever-rising red ink is completely the result of spending growing too fast. I’ve helpfully underlined that portion of Figure 1-2.

And if you want to know the underlying details, here’s Figure 1-4 from the report.

Once again, since I’m a thoughtful person, I’ve highlighted the most important portions. On the left side of Figure 1-4, you’ll see that the health entitlements are the main problem, growing so fast that they outpace even the rapid growth of income taxation. And on the right side, you’ll see confirmation that our fiscal challenge is the growing burden of federal spending, exacerbated by a rising tax burden.

And if you want more detail on health spending, Figure 3-3 confirms what every sensible person suspected, which is that Obamacare did not flatten the cost curve of health spending.

Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and other government health entitlements are projected to consume ever-larger chunks of economic output.

Now let’s turn to the revenue side of the budget.

Figure 5-1 is important because it shows that the tax burden will automatically climb, even without any of the class-warfare tax hikes advocated by Hillary Clinton.

And what this also means is that more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal challenge is caused by excessive government spending (and the Obama White House also has confessed this is true).

Let’s close with two additional charts.

We’ll start with Figure 8-1, which shows that things are getting worse rather than better. This year’s forecast shows a big jump in long-run red ink.

There are several reasons for this deterioration, including sub-par economic performance, failure to comply with spending caps, and adoption of new fiscal burdens.

The bottom line is that we’re becoming more like Greece at a faster pace.

Last but not least, here’s a chart that underscores why our healthcare system is such a mess.

Figure 3-1 shows that consumers directly finance only 11 percent of their health care, which is rather compelling evidence that we have a massive government-created third-party payer problem in that sector of our economy.

Yes, this is primarily a healthcare issue, especially if you look at the economic consequences, but it’s also a fiscal issue since nearly half of all health spending is by the government.

P.S. If these charts aren’t sufficiently depressing, just imagine what they will look like in four years.

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I don’t mind being polemical on occasion, but I generally don’t accuse my opponents of being “socialists.”

American leftists generally focus on redistribution and regulatory intervention and socialism technically means that the government directly owns, operates, and controls various sectors of the economy (think, for example, of the difference between Obamacare and the U.K.’s system, where doctors are public employees and the government operates the hospitals).

But we do have a few islands of socialism in the United States. Education is probably the biggest sector of our economy that is dominated by government. The air traffic control system is another unfortunate example.

Today, though, let’s focus on the Postal Service.

I wrote about this topic a couple of years ago, but we now have lots of additional evidence on why we should replace this costly and inefficient government monopoly with a system based on real competition and no subsidies.

My colleague Chris Edwards explains that, from an economic and taxpayer perspective, the postal monopoly is a dumpster fire.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has lost more than $50 billion since 2007, even though it enjoys legal monopolies over letters, bulk mail, and access to mailboxes. The USPS has a unionized, bureaucratic, and overpaid workforce. And as a government entity, it pays no income or property taxes, allowing it to compete unfairly with private firms in the package and express delivery businesses. …the USPS needs a major overhaul. It should be privatized and opened to competition. But instead of reform, congressional Republicans are moving forward with legislation that tinkers around the edges. Their bill adjusts retiree health care, hikes stamp prices, and retains six-day delivery despite a 40 percent drop in letter volume since 2000. The bill would also create “new authority to offer non-postal products,” thus threatening to increase the tax-free entity’s unfair competition against private firms.

Amazingly, this is an area where European nations actually are more market-oriented than the United States.

Republican…timidity is particularly striking when you compare their no-reform bill to the dramatic postal reforms in Europe. …Since 2012 all EU countries have opened their postal industries to competition for all types of mail. A growing number of countries have privatized their postal systems, including Britain, Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands. …On-the-ground competition is small but growing in Europe. In a dozen countries, new competitors have carved out more than five percent of the letter market, and in a handful of countries the share is more than ten percent. …the Europeans are giving entrepreneurs a chance. In response to even the modest competition that has developed so far, major European postal companies have “increased their efficiency and restructured their operations to reduce costs,” according to the EU report.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center weighs in on the issue in a column for Reason.

The Postal Service is a major business enterprise operated by the federal government. Thanks to Congress, it has something many business owners would love to have— protection from competition. Its monopoly on access to mailboxes and the delivery of first-class and standard mail means it doesn’t have to worry about someone offering a better service at a lower price. …unlike private businesses, the Postal Service has access to low-rate loans from the Department of the Treasury, effectively pays no income or property taxes, is exempt from local zoning rules and even has the power of eminent domain.

In addition to all these favors, the Postal Service is getting a huge indirect subsidy for it’s unfunded pension system.

Congress mandated that the Postal Service start making payments to fund the generous retirement health benefits it has promised workers. This was an important reform because the Postal Service has built up an unfunded liability for these benefits of nearly $100 billion. Ideally, postal workers should be paying for these benefits from payroll contributions rather than leaving the liabilities to federal taxpayers down the road. Sadly, Congress is too timid to take on special interests that benefit from the inefficient status quo, such as postal unions, and won’t support serious reforms… A few years ago, President Barack Obama called for a $30 billion bailout from the federal government, a five-day delivery schedule and an increase in the price of stamps. Unfortunately, that would be a bad solution from the perspective of customers and taxpayers. It also would perpetuate the blatantly unfair competition with companies such as FedEx and UPS.

Amazingly, some statists actually want to expand the Postal Service.

One bad idea that “reform” Postal Service supporters are pushing is to allow the government service to compete with private firms in other industries, such as banking. That would be hugely unfair to taxpaying private businesses, and do we really believe that such a bureaucratic agency as the U.S. Postal Service could out-compete private businesses in other areas if there were a level playing field?

The simple way to think about this issue is that an expanded Postal Service would be like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, only able to operate because of special privileges.

Shane Otten, writing for E21, has an “undeliverable” message for the Postal Service.

…the United States Postal Service (USPS)…an independent agency of the U.S. government, …has exclusive control over the postal system. Like every other government monopoly, it has lost money—$56.8 billion since 2007. The Postal Service is a smorgasbord of common government failures, including high labor costs due to unions (including the American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association), congressional burdens restricting needed changes, unfunded pensions… Postal workers earn between 24 percent and 36 percent more than comparable workers in the private sector.  Because of this, labor costs represent approximately 80 percent of all expenses incurred by USPS. For comparison, private delivery service UPS’s labor costs only make up 62 percent of expenditures, even though UPS is unionized. And at union-free FedEx, labor costs come in at just 38 percent of total operating expenses.

Shane echoes Veronique’s argument about the Postal Service’s dodgy approach to pensions.

…the Post Office has not made a prefunding payment since fiscal year 2011. …the Postal Service pays nothing in federal, state, and local taxes on income, sales, property, and purchases. This saves the agency over $2 billion each year, giving it a major advantage over private competitors. The USPS is also immune from zoning regulations, tolls, vehicle registration, and parking tickets. …The Postal Service…can borrow money from the Treasury at a reduced interest rate. …borrowing at this artificially low rate is equivalent to a subsidy of almost $500 million.

By the way, I got castigated for saying it was a “bailout” when Congress said it was okay for the Postal Service to skip payments for employee pensions. I was basically correct, but should have referred to it as a “pre-bailout” or something like that.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason in a modern economy for a government to operate a business that delivers pieces of paper (and more than it would make sense to have government deliver pizzas). Indeed, this is such a slam-dunk issue that even the Washington Post is on the right side.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the Postal Service actually is constitutional. It’s one of the federal government’s enumerated powers. But the fact that the federal government is allowed to maintain postal service doesn’t mean it’s obliged to do it.

P.P.S. Here’s my only example of Postal Service Humor.

P.P.P.S. Though if you have a very dark sense of humor, you may laugh at the “action” of this postal employee. I think he may deserve a retroactive promotion to the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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I’m like a broken record when it comes to entitlement spending. I’ve explained, ad nauseam, that programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and Social Security must be reformed.

In part, genuine entitlement reform is a good idea because you get better economic performance when you replace tax-and-transfer schemes with private savings and competitive markets.

Demographic 2030But reform also is desperately needed because of changing demographics. Simply stated, leaving all the entitlement programs on autopilot is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis.

If you want a rigorous explanation of the issue, my colleague Jeff Miron has a must-read monograph on the topic. You should peruse the entire study, but here’s the key conclusion if you’re pressed for time.

…this paper projects fiscal imbalance as of every year between 1965 and 2014, using data-supported assumptions about gross domestic product (GDP) growth, revenue, and trends in mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs. The projections reveal that the United States has faced a growing fiscal imbalance since the early 1970s, largely as a consequence of continuous growth in mandatory spending. As of 2014, the fiscal imbalance stands at $117.9 trillion, with few signs of future improvement even if GDP growth accelerates or tax revenues increase relative to historic norms. Thus the only viable way to restore fiscal balance is to scale back mandatory spending policies, particularly on large health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Jeff’s report is filled with sobering charts. I’ve picked out three that deserve special attention.

First, here’s a look back in history at the growing fiscal burden of entitlement programs.

Second, here’s a look forward at how the fiscal burden of entitlement programs will get even worse in coming decades.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the two above charts only show the fiscal burden of entitlement programs (sometimes referred to as “mandatory spending” since the laws “mandate” that money be given to anyone who is “entitled” based on various criteria).

When you add discretionary (annually appropriated) spending to the mix, as well as interest that is paid on the national debt, the numbers get even more grim.

Jeff adds everything together and shows, for each year between 1965 and 2014, the “present value” of the gap between what the government is promising to spend and how much revenue it is projected to collect.

These numbers are especially horrific because “present value” is a measure of how much money the government would have to somehow obtain and set aside in order to have a nest egg capable of offsetting future deficits.

Needless to say, the federal government did not have access to $118 trillion (yes, trillion with a “t”) in 2014. And if there were updated numbers for 2015 and 2016 (which would probably be even higher than $118 trillion), the federal government still wouldn’t have access to that amount of money either.

Especially since the total annual output of the American economy is about $18 trillion.

So now you can understand why international bureaucracies like the IMF, BIS, and OECD estimate that the fiscal challenge in the United States may be even bigger than the problems in decrepit welfare states such as France and Italy.

Let’s get another perspective on the issue. James Capretta of the Ethics and Public Policy Center warns about the scope of the problem.

Despite what presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been saying on the campaign trail, the need to reform the nation’s major entitlement programs cannot be wished away. The primary cause of the nation’s fiscal problems, now and in the future, is the rapid rise in entitlement spending. In 1970, spending on Social Security and the major health care entitlement programs was 3.6 percent of GDP. In 2015, spending on these programs was 10.3 percent of GDP. By 2040, CBO expects spending on these programs to reach 14.2 percent of GDP. …entitlement reform is needed to put the federal government’s finances on a more stable foundation.

He outlines his preferred reforms, some of which I heartily embrace and some of what I think are too timid, but the key point is that he succinctly explains the need to act soon to avoid a giant long-term problem.

…reforms are not intended to create budgetary balance in the short-run. Large-scale change cannot be implemented in the major programs without significant transition periods, which means the reforms need to be enacted soon to reduce costs in fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five years. Skeptics may say it’s pointless to worry about fiscal problems that are more than twenty years off. They’re wrong. …The result is a misallocation of resources that undermines long-term economic growth. …Entitlement reform is an absolute necessity, as will soon become evident to everyone, one way or another.

The recent testimony by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute also is must reading.

In just two generations, the government…has effectively become an entitlements machine. …transfers have become a major component in the family budget of the average American household-and our dependence on these government transfers continues to rise. …Fifty years into our great social experiment of massive expansion of entitlement programs, there is ample evidence to indicate that the unintended consequences of this reconfigutation of American political and economic life have been major and adverse.

You should read the entire testimony, which is a comprehensive explanation of how entitlements are eroding American exceptionalism.

And I’ve previously shared some of Eberstadt’s work on the growing dependency crisis in America.

In effect, our “social capital” of self reliance and the work ethic is being replaced by an entitlement mentality.

At the risk of understatement, that won’t end well. Heck, I don’t know which part is more depressing, the ever-growing burden of spending or the fact that more and more Americans think it’s okay to live off the labor of others.

All I can say for sure is that this combination never was, is not now, and never will be a recipe for national success.

Let’s conclude with some sage observations by George Melloan of the Wall Street Journal. He summarizes the problem as being a combination of too much spending and too little political courage. Here’s the too-much-spending part.

…we seem richer than we actually are because we have borrowed so heavily from future generations. …the nation’s slow growth and rising debt are already reducing the opportunities for upward mobility. …Recent projections of the future cost of current government obligations certainly won’t relieve…people’s worries. Those promises have expanded far beyond any reasonable projection of the government’s ability to extract enough revenue to cover them. …The Congressional Budget Office projects a steady rise in “mandatory” (i.e., entitlement) costs as a share of GDP out into the distant future. …The upshot: Americans are deep in debt, mainly thanks to government excesses.

And here’s the too-little-political-courage part.

The only real answer is that the entitlement programs will have to be reformed, and sooner better than later, because the longer reform is postponed the greater the fiscal imbalance will become and the greater its drain will be… Donald Trump is out to lunch on this issue, as he is on most questions that require more than a fatuous sound-bite answer. As for Hillary…, forget about it.

Sigh, how depressing. It seems like America will be “Europeanized.”

For additional background on the issue of debt, unfunded liabilities, and present value, this video is a great tutorial.

P.S. I must have taken LSD or crack earlier this year. That’s the only logical explanation for saying I was optimistic about entitlement reform.

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